Programming is tough, so why do
some people develop a passion for it?
There are many views of this question. Here are a few
answers. The explanations appear very different. They are presented in
very different styles.
It is wise to take each point of view with a large grain of salt, while
appreciating the internal coherence of these essays, and sometimes
their elegance of expression.
View 1: The Raw Fact of
In The Joy of Hex -or- Why
I'm So Happy When I Program, Jim Neil does not attempt to
generalise. He simply tells how he came to be engrossed with
The story is well told and is a good example of how people
get addicted to the craft. The reason given for the attraction of
programming is given quite simply:
total control and the logic of it all ".
View 2: Programming is
Fun Because it is Creative
Fred Brooks wrote The Mythical Man-Month in 1975. The
book has remained on the reading list of Computer-Science or Software
Engineering degrees ever since. It presents the realities of large
software projects in an inimitable style. The paragraph that sums up
Brooks point of view of why programming is fun is reproduced below.
Follow this link for a one-page extract and
links to the publisher.
programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure
thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by
exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so
easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand
conceptual structures. (...)
Yet the program construct, unlike the poet's words, is real in the
sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separately
from the construct itself. It prints results, draws pictures, produces
sounds, moves arms. The magic of myth and legend has come true in our
time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display
screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be."
Alan Carter and Colston Sanger in The Programmers'
Stone express a point of view of software engineers practicing in
the IT industry. They describe what they observe in the population of
professional software developers:
There are two kinds of people: "mappers" and "packers".
Mappers are inventive, alert people, and very productive as
programmers. They enjoy programming. Packers do everything by rote,
following procedures laid down in manuals. They kill the fun in
programming. Mappers are one or two order of magnitude more productive
than packers. Packers are singled out as the root cause of the
> We all start up as mappers, but
for many of us the aptitude is destroyed, often at an early age by boredom.
Those of us so affected become packers, "ritual junkies", addicted to
following sterile me-tho-do-lo-gies, afraid of change, and of
> The "mapping" process is not
analysed in detail, but it is said to involve "exploring the details of
our desires, and understanding them in such a way that we can keep
track of all the complexity".
> So in the end, why is programming
because "programming is as near to pure
mapping as you can get outside your skull. This is why it is fun. It is
endless discovery, understanding and learning ".
The software engineering practice of "Extreme
Programming" (XP) is seen as an attempt to restore the fun of "mapping"
to software development. XP claims to be a lightweight, efficient,
low-risk, flexible, predictable, scientific, and fun way to develop
software. (See http://www.extremeprogramming.org/)
View 4: Programming and
Programming is an intensely focused activity. The sense of time and
self seems to vanish. When, despite the difficulty of the task, it is
accompanied with the sense of being in control, the experience can be
described a manifestation of the phenomenon of "flow".
This is a very intense and enjoyable experience which can
can give sense and direction to one's life. It was first described by
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the book "Flow:
The Psychology of Optimal Experience", HarperCollins (1991).
A frequent quote from the book reads:
"We have all
experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces,
we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the
rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep
sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark
in memory for what life should be like. This is what we mean by optimal
The characteristic of the flow optimal experience are given
- a sense of playfulness
- a feeling of being in control
- concentration and highly focused
- mental enjoyment of the activity
for its own sake
- a distorted sense of time
- a match between the challenge at hand and one's skills
The last characteristic is important: The task must be at
the limit of one's capabilities. Too easy, and boredom ensues rather
than flow. Too difficult, and anxiety is the result instead.
Programmers are understood to be sharing this optimal
experience of "flow" with artists, rock-climbers, musicians, surgeons,
athletes and others.
Many programmers would recognise the above characteristics
of flow as part of their programming life. Repeated experiences of flow
can shape one's personality, provide a purpose, and a sense of
stability and accomplishment.
More excerpts from the book, and information on flow can be
found at http://www.debateit.net/improvethought/flow1.htm
View 5: Programming and
The "flow" idea above has been accompanied by some extreme corollaries
with a tendency towards mysticism. In the late 1990s the
"movement" had taken cultish overtones. Not surprisingly this resulted
in some sharp criticism of the psychological analysis employed by
Csikszentmihalyi and followers.
Dr. Mezmer's page at http://www.homestead.com/flowstate/files/zflowlousy.htm
offers a hilarious criticism the above view of flow.
It explains that flow is not a mystical phenomenon. Instead
it is "a high
state of attention, the conscious and unconscious processing of a
massive amount of information relating to the accomplishment of a task,
and the often profound state of relaxation and pleasurable alertness
that occurs to further fix an individual to the task at hand and
otherwise optimize cognitive efficiency. (...) The non-conscious
processes that occur to optimize cognitive performance feel very, very
good, but are also unfortunately very, very rare."
The pleasure of "flow" is presented as dopamine release in
the brain: "in
the last five years, research in the neuro-physiology of attention has
discovered that whenever attention 'shifts' to cognitive precept or
perception, the neuro-chemical dopamine is released that not only
'fixes' attention, but rewards the individual for paying attention.
(...) in certain situations that impel an individual to rapidly shift
attention to a host of salient or important precepts (e.g. creative
activity, gambling, sports), the release of dopamine is sustained, with
the result that the individual reports a subjective state of ecstasy,
pleasure, and bliss."
Flow is a useful metaphor, but viewing it as an "elevated
state of consciousness" is mere poetry. From the point of view of
neuro-psychology, according to Dr Mezmer "flow does not exist ".
So that's it...
Programmers are dopamine junkies. It's as simple as
More about Dr Mezmer (aka A.J. Marr) on http://drmezmer.com
What do I think about it?
I love the act of giving virtual life to
abstract ideas as expressed so poetically above in "The Mythical
Man-Month". I enjoy the dopamine rush of success when a software dream
of extreme complexity comes to life. It accompanies the pleasure of
feeling that I can achieve quite difficult intellectual tasks. I enjoy
pushing back the limits; I enjoy tackling ever higher levels of
complexity. I also love giving out simple programs that work and are
useful. There is pride and joy in giving the fruit of one's labour, be
it a program working like clockwork, or a perfectly baked cake. I hope
be able to keep on dealing with the challenges of software complexity
a ripe old age.
I also think that there is a danger of addiction to these pleasures.
Programming involves an extraordinary amount of mind energy, and time
simply disappears. If we spend a huge amount of time programming, very
specialised skills develop, but other aspects of
our humanity may weaken over time. I did not always realise this, and
for a while, caught in "flow",
I abused that drug. Now I devote more time to enjoying the more organic
pleasures of life, love, art and nature. I hope I have restored a
I find disagreeable and dangerous a vision of the programming world
divided into "packers" and "mappers" as presented in the "Programmer's
Stone". It turns a mismanagement issue into an ego trip. The
frustration of being constrained by imposed structures that restrict
our productivity and our pleasure is turned into the feeling that we
belong to a small elite of
achievers surrounded by a sea of no-hopers.
This distorted view leads to scorn,
arrogance, bigotry. It's a dead end. To many young males
of the species who are answering the genetically programmed urge to
demonstrate their worth, it is unfortunately a seductive idea.
Modified: August 2004
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